Kemp suspends state gas tax for the last time

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp signed an executive order Thursday suspending the state sales tax on gasoline for the seventh and final time since March, when pump prices began climbing after the outbreak of war in Ukraine.

The latest suspension will run through Jan. 10, the day after Georgia lawmakers convene under the Gold Dome for the 2023 General Assembly session. After that, Kemp will look to the legislature to help provide tax relief to Georgians in other ways, the governor said during a news conference at the state Capitol.

“We can’t continue to do what we’re doing with gas taxes,” Kemp said. “This was always intended as a short-term answer.”

Kemp, who was reelected to a second term in office last month, repeated a pledge he made on the campaign trail this year to push for an additional $1 billion state income tax rebate on top of the $1.6 billion tax rebate Georgia lawmakers approved this year. He also is asking the legislature for $1 billion in property tax rebates.

Incoming Republican legislative leaders appeared with Kemp Thursday to lend support to his tax cutting proposals.

“Georgians deserve to keep as much of their hard-earned money as possible,” said House Majority Leader Jon Burns, R-Newington, the House Republican Caucus’ nominee to succeed the late David Ralston as speaker of the House. “It’s not our money.”

Providing additional tax relief shouldn’t be a heavy lift for the General Assembly. The state is sitting on top of a $6.6 billion budget surplus, which will make deciding what to do with tax dollars a lot easier.

In confirming he was suspending the gas tax for the last time, Kemp noted that pump prices have been falling. The average price of a gallon of regular unleaded gas in Georgia currently is $2.93 per gallon, according to AAA, down from $3.13 a month ago and well below this year’s peak price of $4.50 per gallon in mid-June.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Electric vehicle battery manufacturer coming to Bartow County

ATLANTA – The new Hyundai electric vehicles plant being built near Savannah will partner with a key supplier on the other side of the state.

Hyundai Motor Group (HMG) and SK On have selected a site in Bartow County for a new EV battery manufacturing facility to supply Hyundai’s EV plants across the country, Gov. Brian Kemp announced Thursday.

The battery plant will create more than 3,500 new jobs through an investment of $4 billion to $5 billion.

“Hyundai Motor Group and SK On are valued partners and key players in our state’s ever-growing automotive industry,” Kemp said. “Since day one, my administration has been focused on bringing jobs and opportunity to communities across the state that may have been overlooked in the past. SK and HMG share this goal.”

SK On was established just last year as the lithium-ion battery subsidiary of SK Innovation, South Korea’s largest energy company, which currently employs more than 2,000 Georgians at a battery plant in Commerce. The new facility in Bartow County is expected to begin operations in 2025.

Not counting Thursday’s announcement, EV-related projects in Georgia since 2020 total about $17 billion in investment and account for more than 22,800 new jobs.

“We’re creating a fully integrated supply chain for automotive [manufacturers] while also connecting battery manufacturers with recyclers to close the loop on battery manufacturing,” Georgia Commissioner of Economic Development Pat Wilson said. “We’re excited for the jobs of the future this will create for Bartow County and Northwest Georgia.”

The state Department of Economic Development’s Global Commerce Team worked in partnership with Georgia EMC, the Development Authority of Bartow County, the Cartersville-Bartow County Department of Economic Development, and the Technical College System of Georgia’s Quick Start program to land the project.

The huge Hyundai EV plant being built near Savannah in Bryan County is the largest economic development project in Georgia history, a $5.5 billion investment expected to create 8,100 jobs when fully built out.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Interior secretary asks state to deny permits for titanium mine near Okefenokee

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland

ATLANTA – The Biden administration is expressing concern about a proposed titanium mine near the Okefenokee Swamp.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is urging the state not to approve permits being sought by Alabama-based Twin Pines Minerals (TPM) to mine a 1,042-acre site in Charlton County near the southeastern edge of the largest black water swamp in North America.

“The department has a profound interest in protecting the health and integrity of the swamp ecosystem,” Haaland wrote late last month in a letter to Gov. Brian Kemp. “It is a unique wetland ecosystem unlike any other found in North America and is one of the world’s most hydrologically intact freshwater ecosystems.”

Haaland, who visited the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in September, also noted the Okefenokee is part of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s ancestral homeland and, thus, has cultural value that could be affected by a mine. Haaland is the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary.

The refuge is the 16th most visited in the nation, with more than 400,000 visitors per year, she wrote.

Josh Marks, a lawyer and longtime advocate for protecting the swamp, said Haaland is the second interior secretary who has spoken out against mining near the Okefenokee.

“[Secretary Bruce] Babbitt did the same thing 25 years ago in opposing DuPont’s Okefenokee proposal,” Marks said.  “Hopefully, Governor Kemp will listen to her, just as Governor Zell Miller listened to Secretary Babbitt, and say no to TPM.”

The project’s opponents filed a lawsuit last month challenging a decision by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to turn jurisdiction over permits for the mine to the state.

The Corps had suspended the Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s (EPD) review of the proposed mine last June. But the agency later agreed in an out-of-court settlement with Twin Pines to step aside and let the EPD resume its consideration of the permits.

Twin Pines officials say the mine does not threaten the environment, noting the proposed site for the project is three miles from the southeast corner of the Okefenokee at its closest point and 11 miles from the nearest canoe trail used by visitors.

The company also maintains the land will be restored to its original contours and native vegetation after mining activity is completed.

Kemp has not taken a position on the project.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

How did Warnock beat Walker – and what difference will it make? 

Democrat Raphael Warnock defeated Republican Herschel Walker in the runoff for Georgia’s Senate seat this week.

ATLANTA – Georgia voters turned out in large numbers to vote in the U.S. Senate runoff on Tuesday, propelling incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock to a narrow victory over Republican Herschel Walker.  

Back in the November general election, Republicans claimed a clean sweep of statewide constitutional offices, from the governor down to agriculture commissioner. But the December runoff for the Senate seat reversed that trend, with Warnock ultimately winning by a narrow margin of about 97,000 votes.
Political scientists pointed to several factors that helped Warnock buck the statewide tilt toward the

One was the relative weakness of Republican challenger Herschel Walker’s candidacy. Walker’s campaign was dogged by a number of serious character allegations, including that he paid for his ex-girlfriends’ abortions despite his public pro-life stance and that he had been violent toward his ex-wife.

“Candidate quality still matters,” said Pearl Dowe, an African American studies and political science professor at Emory University.  

Dowe said former President Donald Trump’s endorsement of political neophyte Walker – and some Georgia voters’ resistance to Trump’s politics – played a role in the “tepid” support of Republicans for Walker.  

Warnock effectively pitched his message to more moderate voters in Georgia, allowing him to pick up crucial votes, Dowe said.  

“The reasons we got a different result yesterday [from the November general elections] is because Republicans nominated Herschel Walker as their senatorial candidate,” agreed University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock.   

Bullock said Warnock’s runoff victory was built on small, piece-by-piece gains across the state. He pointed to Baldwin County, home of Milledgeville and Georgia College and State University. Back in November, Walker bested Warnock by 89 votes in Baldwin. But this time around, Warnock beat Walker by 153 votes, effectively flipping the county.

Baldwin is one of five counties that Warnock flipped from red to blue between November and December, Bullock said. 

One big difference between the November race and the December runoff was the absence of a third-party candidate that could siphon away crucial votes. Back in November, Libertarian Chase Oliver pulled about 2% of the vote away from the two mainstream candidates.

This time around, voters had only two choices: Walker or Warnock. While it’s difficult to track exactly what happened to the people who voted for Oliver in November, it’s clear that Warnock benefited from the narrowed field, Bullock said.  

Walker also did not perform as well in December as he did in November in solidly red counties, Bullock added, pointing to Forsyth County as one example. While Walker won both times, he pulled around 66,000 votes in November, dropping down to only around 58,000 votes in December. Such small declines added up across the state, Bullock said. 

After the November results rolled in, it became clear that no matter what happened in the Peach State, Republicans would not be able to control the Senate in Washington. That’s because going into the Georgia runoff, Democrats controlled 50 seats while Republicans had 49. Some Republicans who might have otherwise turned out to ensure party control of the Senate may have skipped this week’s vote, Bullock said. 

Ultimately, the Peach State is still almost evenly divided when it comes to party politics, despite Democrats’ historic victories in the last election cycle two years ago.  

“I know some Democrats were saying after 2020 that this is a blue state,” Bullock said. “Well, this isn’t a blue state. It’s probably a pink state, pink tending toward purple.”  

Still, Democrats will now have a very slim – but significant – majority in the U.S. Senate: 51-49. That makes a difference in a number of areas.  

“Each Senate committee will have a Democratic majority rather than having equal numbers of Democrats or Republicans,” Bullock said. “That means it will be easier for those committees to take a straight party-line vote and move forward and hold the hearings they want to, hear the witnesses they want to.”  

And though 51 votes is not enough to break a filibuster, which requires 60 votes, budget bills and nominations cannot be filibustered, Bullock said. So Democrats should be able to get Senate approval for budget-related measures.   

One Democrat — such as West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat who frequently votes with Republicans – won’t be able to hold up those bills.  

“The Senate really does matter,” said Dowe.  “We see that a lot of the bills over the last few years that increased spending, increased support for poverty, for children, overall quality of life for low-income persons..when they reached the Senate because of the [50-50] tie many of those policies … were actually watered down.”  

“Where some of the bills tend to have more emphasis on direct support for particular issues that are considered Democratic issues….you won’t see that watered down type of haggling,” said Dowe, pointing to environmental and trade regulations as examples.  

But don’t expect a Democratic free-for-all in Washington. Non-budget bills are still subject to a filibuster. Also, the U.S. House of Representatives is now in Republican hands, putting a check on the Democratic Senate and President Joe Biden. 

“Do you expect to see massive new things coming out of Congress?” Bullock said. “Don’t delude yourself.”

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Georgia Power completes key testing milestone at Plant Vogtle

ATLANTA – Georgia Power has completed cold hydro testing for the second of two additional nuclear reactors being built at Plant Vogtle, confirming the reactor’s coolant system functions as designed, the utility announced Wednesday.

The completion of cold hydro testing is required to support the last major test remaining at the facility’s Unit 4, hot functional testing, which Georgia Power expects to begin by the end of the first quarter of 2023.

Meanwhile, the first of the new reactors, Unit 3, is due to go into service early next year.

“The team at the Vogtle 3 & 4 site continues to make important progress as we move closer to bringing online the first new nuclear units to be built in the country in over 30 years,” said Chris Womack, Georgia Power’s chairman, president, and CEO. “These units are a long-term investment for our state and essential to building the future of energy for Georgia.”

The completion of the nuclear expansion at Plant Vogtle south of Augusta has been a long time coming. The two reactors were originally expected to go into service in 2016 and 2017, respectively. But the work was delayed by the bankruptcy of Westinghouse Electric, the original prime contractor on the project, as well as pandemic-related disruptions to the construction workforce.

The delays caused a series of cost overruns that more than doubled the original expected price tag of $14 billion.

The project’s critics have complained for years that Georgia Power could have found less expensive ways to increase its power generating capacity to meet the needs of a growing number of customers, including renewable sources of energy. Indeed, the two new nuclear reactors coming online will account for a significant portion of a series of rate increases the utility intends to seek from the state Public Service Commission during the next couple of years.

Georgia Power officials say the two new units are expected to power more than 500,000 homes and businesses with emission-free energy. Southern Nuclear, a Georgia Power subsidiary, will operate the new units on behalf of four co-owners: Georgia Power, Oglethorpe Power, MEAG Power and Dalton Utilities.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Matt Hatchett to chair Georgia House Appropriations Committee

Georgia Rep. Matt Hatchett

ATLANTA – Georgia House Speaker Jan Jones appointed former House Majority Whip Matt Hatchett Wednesday to chair the House Appropriations Committee.

“Over his dozen years of service in the House, Chairman Hatchett has earned the trust and respect of our colleagues and brings considerable expertise to this new leadership position,” said Jones, R-Milton.

“The House takes very seriously our stewardship role in working with both the governor and the state Senate to produce a conservative budget that invests wisely for Georgia’s future. I know Chairman Hatchett will ably lead the members of the Appropriations Committee in their important work.”

Hatchett, R-Dublin, succeeds Rep. Terry England, R-Auburn, who chaired the budget-writing committee for 12 years. England did not seek re-election this year.

Hatchett, elected to the House in 2010, has served in numerous leadership roles during his tenure, including as a governor’s floor leader, majority caucus chairman and, most recently, majority caucus whip. He currently serves on the Appropriations Committee’s General Government Subcommittee and has been a member of two other appropriations subcommittees.

Hatchett received a Bachelor of Science degree in applied mathematics from Presbyterian College. He currently serves as director of mission enhancement for the Mercer University School of Medicine.

As House speaker pro tempore, Jones moved up to speaker last month upon the death of Speaker David Ralston. The House Republican Caucus has nominated House Majority Leader Jon Burns, R-Newington, to take the reins as speaker when the General Assembly begins the 2023 session next month.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.